What happened to Josh Barfield?

Know up front that I’m not going to answer the question. Instead, I’ll attempt to shed light on a few possible factors that may have contributed to Josh Barfield‘s horrendous sophomore season.

Background

In November 2006, the Padres traded Barfield to Cleveland for third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff and right-hander Andrew Brown. In San Diego, this deal was met with a cool reception. The previous winter, the Padres had traded the best second baseman in franchise history, Mark Loretta, to Boston for nothing (Doug Mirabelli) to make room for Barfield, their fourth round pick in the 2001 draft.

Barfield responded by hitting .280/.318/.423 and playing better-than-advertised defense. He also contributed some key hits en route to San Diego’s second straight NL West title, including a single with one out in the 11th inning of a May 5 game that gave the Padres a 1-0 victory, as well as a dramatic three-run homer off Rockies closer Brian Fuentes on Sept. 4 that won a crucial game for the Padres and kept them close to the then-front-running Dodgers.

In short, Barfield was young, homegrown, and popular with teammates and fans alike. His trade to the Indians caught nearly everyone by surprise. Some overzealous San Diego pundits went so far as to compare him to a homegrown second baseman that had slipped away a generation earlier, Roberto Alomar.

The comparison didn’t make sense, of course. Alomar was much younger when he reached the big leagues and he’d always exhibited good plate discipline. He also had played shortstop in the minors and was—high error totals notwithstanding—a spectacular defender on the other side of the bag from day one.

A better comp

I’ve been following Barfield’s career since he was drafted, and as he moved up the ranks in the Padres system, the player who came to mind as a comp—at least on offense—was Orlando Hudson. Decent batting average, decent power, questionable strike-zone judgment (we’re talking the Hudson that first arrived in the big leagues back in 2002-03, not the current version).

Barfield’s MLEs for 2005 checked in at .273/.327/.388, which looks a lot like the .268/.328/.395 line that Hudson posted in his first full season at age 25. Barfield actually improved on his MLE as a rookie, ending up with numbers that looked more like Hudson’s age 27 season:

Barfield ’06 vs Hudson ’05
Age PA BA OBP SLG ISO XB/H PA/HR BB/PA
Barfield ’06 23 578 .280 .318 .423 .143 .318 44.5 .052
Hudson ’05 27 501 .271 .315 .412 .141 .320 50.1 .060

If you didn’t know better, you might well assume that both lines belonged to the same player. Beyond Barfield’s overall success, one encouraging sign for Padres fans was his performance after Merv Rettenmund replaced Dave Magadan as hitting coach (table reprinted from the Ducksnorts 2007 Baseball Annual):

Barfield ’06 by batting coach
PA BA OBP SLG ISO XB/H PA/HR BB/PA
Magadan 236 .255 .292 .373 .118 .286 59.0 .047
Rettenmund 342 .298 .335 .458 .160 .337 38.0 .056

We don’t have enough information to determine how much of Barfield’s improvement came as a direct result of the coaching change, but it’s clear that his offensive game picked up in a big way when Rettenmund came onboard. Whatever the case, Barfield finished strong, which ordinarily is a good sign for a rookie. If the league’s pitchers had learned Barfield’s tendencies, then he had also made—possibly with Rettenmund’s help—the necessary adjustments.

Cleveland rocks, but Barfield didn’t

One problem for Barfield as a rookie had been his lackluster showing (.241/.279/.361) at Petco Park. Because he hit so much better (.319/.355/.484) on the road, after his trade to Cleveland, the assumption was that he would thrive in a more forgiving offensive environment.

History tells a different story. Barfield’s game deteriorated in nearly every way imaginable. He saw his batting average drop by nearly 40 points, his plate discipline plummet to Roomesian levels, and his power evaporate faster than you can say “Lake Erie.”

Doctor Barfield and Mister Josh
Yr PA BA OBP SLG ISO XB/H PA/HR BB/PA
’06 578 .280 .318 .423 .143 .318 44.5 .052
’07 444 .243 .270 .324 .081 .245 148.0 .032

Barfield had sported a batting average in the .240s once before in his career—at Double-A in 2004—but he’d never shown such poor power or strike-zone judgment as he did on joining the Indians. Even during his first full pro season in the Midwest League, Barfield’s strikeout-to-walk ratio was “only” about 4-to-1. Since then, it had routinely checked in around 2.5-to-1. The 6.5-to-1 ratio he exhibited in 2007 was unprecedented in his professional career.

What went wrong?

As I said at the top, I don’t have a definitive answer, but here are a few possibilities:

  • Barfield fell/relapsed into some bad habits. Maybe whatever it was that caused Barfield to struggle during Magadan’s tenure as Padres hitting coach came back to haunt him in Cleveland. I’m not close enough to the situation to know whether this is true, but it’s a reasonable point to consider.
  • Barfield’s rookie season was a fluke. One of Barfield’s top comparable players through age 24 is former Royals second baseman Carlos Febles, who peaked at age 23. I’m not at all comfortable writing off Barfield on the basis of one good year followed by one bad year, especially given his minor-league track record, but stranger things have happened.
  • Barfield didn’t adapt well to the switch in leagues. With the advent of interleague play, and with so much player movement these days, I’m not sure how much of a factor this is anymore. Still, it is a condition that changed from 2006 to 2007.

My best guess is that there are a combination of factors at work here—some I have suggested, others I may not have considered (hidden injuries, off-field issues, Mercury retrograde, etc.). Any one of them probably wouldn’t be enough to push Barfield in the wrong direction, but together, they just might.

So, where does Barfield go from here? At his age, he would seem a good bet to bounce back and enjoy a solid big-league career. Febles, though, gives us at least one data point suggesting that less favorable outcomes are possible. The wholly unsatisfying answer is that we don’t know and we won’t until it happens. If we did, presumably we’d find better ways to spend our time than talking about such things.

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